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After the August missile strikes, diplomatic options to press the Taliban seemed no more promising than military options. The United States had issued a formal warning to the Taliban, and also to Sudan, that they would be held directly responsible for any attacks on Americans, wherever they occurred, carried out by the Bin Ladin network as long as they continued to provide sanctuary to it.62

For a brief moment, it had seemed as if the August strikes might have shocked the Taliban into thinking of giving up Bin Ladin. On August 22, the reclusive Mullah Omar told a working-level State Department official that the strikes were counterproductive but added that he would be open to a dialogue with the United States on Bin Ladin's presence in Afghanistan.63 Meeting in Islamabad with William Milam, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Taliban delegates said it was against their culture to expel someone seeking sanctuary but asked what would happen to Bin Ladin should he be sent to Saudi Arabia.64

Yet in September 1998, when the Saudi emissary, Prince Turki, asked Mullah Omar whether he would keep his earlier promise to expel Bin Ladin, the Taliban leader said no. Both sides shouted at each other, with Mullah Omar denouncing the Saudi government. Riyadh then suspended its diplomatic relations with the Taliban regime. (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates were the only countries that recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.) Crown Prince Abdullah told President Clinton and Vice President Gore about this when he visited Washington in late September. His account confirmed reports that the U.S. government had received independently.65

Other efforts with the Saudi government centered on improving intelligence sharing and permitting U.S. agents to interrogate prisoners in Saudi custody. The history of such cooperation in 1997 and 1998 had been strained.66 Several officials told us, in particular, that the United States could not get direct access to an important al Qaeda financial official, Madani al Tayyib, who had been detained by the Saudi government in 1997.67 Though U.S. officials repeatedly raised the issue, the Saudis provided limited information. In his September 1998 meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah, Vice President Gore, while thanking the Saudi government for their responsiveness, renewed the request for direct U.S. access to Tayyib.68 The United States never obtained this access.

An NSC staff-led working group on terrorist finances asked the CIA in November 1998 to push again for access to Tayyib and to see "if it is possible to elaborate further on the ties between Usama bin Ladin and prominent individuals in Saudi Arabia, including especially the Bin Ladin family."69 One result was two NSC-led interagency trips to Persian Gulf states in 1999 and 2000. During these trips the NSC, Treasury, and intelligence representatives spoke with Saudi officials, and later interviewed members of the Bin Ladin family, about Usama's inheritance. The Saudis and the Bin Ladin family eventually helped in this particular effort and U.S. officials ultimately learned that Bin Ladin was not financing al Qaeda out of a personal inheritance.70 But Clarke was frustrated about how little the Agency knew, complaining to Berger that four years after "we first asked CIA to track down [Bin Ladin]'s finances" and two years after the creation of the CIA's Bin Ladin unit, the Agency said it could only guess at how much aid Bin Ladin gave to terrorist groups, what were the main sources of his budget, or how he moved his money.71

The other diplomatic route to get at Bin Ladin in Afghanistan ran through Islamabad. In the summer before the embassy bombings, the State Department had been heavily focused on rising tensions between India and Pakistan and did not aggressively challenge Pakistan on Afghanistan and Bin Ladin. But State Department counter-terrorism officials wanted a stronger position; the department's acting counter-terrorism coordinator advised Secretary Albright to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, noting that despite high-level Pakistani assurances, the country's military intelligence service continued "activities in support of international terrorism" by supporting attacks on civilian targets in Kashmir. This recommendation was opposed by the State Department's South Asia bureau, which was concerned that it would damage already sensitive relations with Pakistan in the wake of the May 1998 nuclear tests by both Pakistan and India. Secretary Albright rejected the recommendation on August 5, 1998, just two days before the embassy bombings.72 She told us that, in general, putting the Pakistanis on the terrorist list would eliminate any influence the United States had over them.73 In October, an NSC counter-terrorism official noted that Pakistan's pro-Taliban military intelligence service had been training Kashmiri jihadists in one of the camps hit by U.S. missiles, leading to the death of Pakistanis.74

After flying to Nairobi and bringing home the coffins of the American dead, Secretary Albright increased the department's focus on counter-terrorism. According to Ambassador Milam, the bombings were a "wake-up call," and he soon found himself spending 45 to 50 percent of his time working the Taliban-Bin Ladin portfolio.75 But Pakistan's military intelligence service, known as the ISID (Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate), was the Taliban's primary patron, which made progress difficult.

Additional pressure on the Pakistanis--beyond demands to press the Taliban on Bin Ladin--seemed unattractive to most officials of the State Department. Congressional sanctions punishing Pakistan for possessing nuclear arms prevented the administration from offering incentives to Islamabad.76 In the words of Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, Washington's Pakistan policy was "stick-heavy." Talbott felt that the only remaining sticks were additional sanctions that would have bankrupted the Pakistanis, a dangerous move that could have brought "total chaos" to a nuclear-armed country with a significant number of Islamic radicals.77

The Saudi government, which had a long and close relationship with Pakistan and provided it oil on generous terms, was already pressing Sharif with regard to the Taliban and Bin Ladin. A senior State Department official concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah put "a tremendous amount of heat" on the Pakistani prime minister during the prince's October 1998 visit to Pakistan.78

The State Department urged President Clinton to engage the Pakistanis. Accepting this advice, President Clinton invited Sharif to Washington, where they talked mostly about India but also discussed Bin Ladin. After Sharif went home, the President called him and raised the Bin Ladin subject again. This effort elicited from Sharif a promise to talk with the Taliban.79

Mullah Omar's position showed no sign of softening. One intelligence report passed to Berger by the NSC staff quoted Bin Ladin as saying that Mullah Omar had given him a completely free hand to act in any country, though asking that he not claim responsibility for attacks in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Bin Ladin was described as grabbing his beard and saying emotionally, "By Allah, by God, the Americans will still be amazed. The so-called United States will suffer the same fate as the Russians. Their state will collapse, too."80

Debate in the State Department intensified after December 1998, when Michael Sheehan became counter-terrorism coordinator. A onetime special forces officer, he had worked with Albright when she was ambassador to the United Nations and had served on the NSC staff with Clarke. He shared Clarke's obsession with terrorism, and had little hesitation about locking horns with the regional bureaus. Through every available channel, he repeated the earlier warning to the Taliban of the possible dire consequences--including military strikes--if Bin Ladin remained their guest and conducted additional attacks. Within the department, he argued for designating the Taliban regime a state sponsor of terrorism. This was technically difficult to do, for calling it a state would be tantamount to diplomatic recognition, which the United States had thus far withheld. But Sheehan urged the use of any available weapon against the Taliban. He told us that he thought he was regarded in the department as "a one-note Johnny nutcase."81

In early 1999, the State Department's counter-terrorism office proposed a comprehensive diplomatic strategy for all states involved in the Afghanistan problem, including Pakistan. It specified both carrots and hard-hitting sticks-- among them, certifying Pakistan as uncooperative on terrorism. Albright said the original carrots and sticks listed in a decision paper for principals may not have been used as "described on paper" but added that they were used in other ways or in varying degrees. But the paper's author, Ambassador Sheehan, was frustrated and complained to us that the original plan "had been watered down to the point that nothing was then done with it."82

The cautiousness of the South Asia bureau was reinforced when, in May 1999, Pakistani troops were discovered to have infiltrated into an especially mountainous area of Kashmir. A limited war began between India and Pakistan, euphemistically called the "Kargil crisis," as India tried to drive the Pakistani forces out. Patience with Pakistan was wearing thin, inside both the State Department and the NSC. Bruce Riedel, the NSC staff member responsible for Pakistan, wrote Berger that Islamabad was "behaving as a rogue state in two areas--backing Taliban/UBL terror and provoking war with India."83

Discussion within the Clinton administration on Afghanistan then concentrated on two main alternatives. The first, championed by Riedel and Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth, was to undertake a major diplomatic effort to end the Afghan civil war and install a national unity government. The second, favored by Sheehan, Clarke, and the CIA, called for labeling the Taliban a terrorist group and ultimately funneling secret aid to its chief foe, the Northern Alliance. This dispute would go back and forth throughout 1999 and ultimately become entangled with debate about enlisting the Northern Alliance as an ally for covert action.84

Another diplomatic option may have been available: nurturing Afghan exile groups as a possible moderate governing alternative to the Taliban. In late 1999, Washington provided some support for talks among the leaders of exile Afghan groups, including the ousted Rome-based King Zahir Shah and Hamid Karzai, about bolstering anti-Taliban forces inside Afghanistan and linking the Northern Alliance with Pashtun groups. One U.S. diplomat later told us that the exile groups were not ready to move forward and that coordinating fractious groups residing in Bonn, Rome, and Cyprus proved extremely difficult.85

Frustrated by the Taliban's resistance, two senior State Department officials suggested asking the Saudis to offer the Taliban $250 million for Bin Ladin. Clarke opposed having the United States facilitate a "huge grant to a regime as heinous as the Taliban" and suggested that the idea might not seem attractive to either Secretary Albright or First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton--both critics of the Taliban's record on women's rights.86 The proposal seems to have quietly died.

Within the State Department, some officials delayed Sheehan and Clarke's push either to designate Taliban-controlled Afghanistan as a state sponsor of terrorism or to designate the regime as a foreign terrorist organization (thereby avoiding the issue of whether to recognize the Taliban as Afghanistan's government). Sheehan and Clarke prevailed in July 1999, when President Clinton issued an executive order effectively declaring the Taliban regime a state sponsor of terrorism.87 In October, a UN Security Council Resolution championed by the United States added economic and travel sanctions.88

With UN sanctions set to come into effect in November, Clarke wrote Berger that "the Taliban appear to be up to something."89 Mullah Omar had shuffled his "cabinet" and hinted at Bin Ladin's possible departure. Clarke's staff thought his most likely destination would be Somalia; Chechnya seemed less appealing with Russia on the offensive. Clarke commented that Iraq and Libya had previously discussed hosting Bin Ladin, though he and his staff had their doubts that Bin Ladin would trust secular Arab dictators such as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qadhafi. Clarke also raised the "remote possibility" of Yemen, which offered vast uncontrolled spaces. In November, the CSG discussed whether the sanctions had rattled the Taliban, who seemed "to be looking for a face-saving way out of the Bin Ladin issue."90

In fact none of the outside pressure had any visible effect on Mullah Omar, who was unconcerned about commerce with the outside world. Omar had virtually no diplomatic contact with the West, since he refused to meet with non-Muslims. The United States learned that at the end of 1999, the Taliban Council of Ministers unanimously reaffirmed that their regime would stick by Bin Ladin. Relations between Bin Ladin and the Taliban leadership were sometimes tense, but the foundation was deep and personal.91 Indeed, Mullah Omar had executed at least one subordinate who opposed his pro-Bin Ladin policy.92

The United States would try tougher sanctions in 2000.Working with Russia (a country involved in an ongoing campaign against Chechen separatists, some of whom received support from Bin Ladin), the United States persuaded the United Nations to adopt Security Council Resolution 1333, which included an embargo on arms shipments to the Taliban, in December 2000.93 The aim of the resolution was to hit the Taliban where it was most sensitive-- on the battlefield against the Northern Alliance--and criminalize giving them arms and providing military "advisers," which Pakistan had been doing.94 Yet the passage of the resolution had no visible effect on Omar, nor did it halt the flow of Pakistani military assistance to the Taliban.95

U.S. authorities had continued to try to get cooperation from Pakistan in pressing the Taliban to stop sheltering Bin Ladin. President Clinton contacted Sharif again in June 1999, partly to discuss the crisis with India but also to urge Sharif, "in the strongest way I can," to persuade the Taliban to expel Bin Ladin.96 The President suggested that Pakistan use its control over oil supplies to the Taliban and over Afghan imports through Karachi. Sharif suggested instead that Pakistani forces might try to capture Bin Ladin themselves. Though no one in Washington thought this was likely to happen, President Clinton gave the idea his blessing.97

The President met with Sharif in Washington in early July. Though the meeting's main purpose was to seal the Pakistani prime minister's decision to withdraw from the Kargil confrontation in Kashmir, President Clinton complained about Pakistan's failure to take effective action with respect to the Taliban and Bin Ladin. Sharif came back to his earlier proposal and won approval for U.S. assistance in training a Pakistani special forces team for an operation against Bin Ladin. Then, in October 1999, Sharif was deposed by General Pervez Musharraf, and the plan was terminated.98

At first, the Clinton administration hoped that Musharraf's coup might create an opening for action on Bin Ladin. A career military officer, Musharraf was thought to have the political strength to confront and influence the Pakistani military intelligence service, which supported the Taliban. Berger speculated that the new government might use Bin Ladin to buy concessions from Washington, but neither side ever developed such an initiative.99

By late 1999, more than a year after the embassy bombings, diplomacy with Pakistan, like the efforts with the Taliban, had, according to Under Secretary of State Thomas Pickering, "borne little fruit."100

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© 2004-2012, David A. Desrosiers. unauthorized reproduction of this work is forbidden by law.